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This Texas Artist Captures Life with Candid Watercolor Portraits of People

Stephen Zhang is an absolute icon. The Chinese artist’s watercolor art evokes a sense of realistic wonder and enchantment and has been doing so over the span of three decades and counting. A technique and ideology he developed over time – with help from mentors like his father Defu Zhang and professor Rob Erdle – his painting methods are absolutely extraordinary.

Source: Stephen Zhang

The History of Watercolor

Though Zhang’s design work has spanned many artistic mediums, his primary method of artistic expression does lie in watercolors. “I have a special connection with watercolor since it bridges Eastern and Western artistic traditions,” Zhang explained to My Modern Met. He’s not wrong. While watercolor is a tradition that dates back to cave paintings in more simple times, the methodology behind it and its development as a topic in school began in the Middle East and Far East.

Silk and handmade paper were utilized by Japanese and Chinese watercolor artists early on, a gorgeous technique that continues today. Historically, the focus was on calligraphy art, which served as an overlay to beautiful still landscapes, often in pastels. In other parts of the world–namely, India, Persia and Europe – watercolor was used to depict religious artifacts, stories and manuscripts. In fact, projects as prestigious as the Sistine Chapel were completed using a method called fresco, or watercolor applied to wet plaster. Watercolor later developed into a method used on wood, especially while the paper was still considered a luxury item and was less widely accessible.

What sets Zhang’s work apart

Zhang’s watercolor work isn’t catered strictly toward portraiture, still life, and landscape, as many popular artists are known for. He doesn’t derive his work from word art or religious sentiments. Instead, his art showcases moments of movement.

While Zhang takes inspiration from the world around him, it seems to be the emotional response to particular moments in time–no matter how small–that really kickstarts his creative complex. “When I paint, I take advantage of contradictions inherent in the medium, between complexity and simplicity, controlling and letting go, external and internal, and permanent and temporary,” he says. “My painting always starts with something that moves me, and then it begins to take on its own path.

With his more updated collections, Stephen Zhang tends to draw the focus to the subjects and their movement. He leaves the objects and background detail you may find in more traditional watercolor paintings out of frame, and instead zeroes in on the forefront. Where you may see more detail in some paintings, you will notice that what exists on the canvas–whatever that may be–is in movement or is part of the work or task being depicted.

Some of Zhang’s more recent work captures moments of beauty, like families preparing a meal in a kitchen, surrounded by delectable and vibrant ingredients. The ingredients are an active piece of the painting because the women in the frame are actively preparing a meal. Some of the ingredients are seen in movement, others are part of the assembly line for the task. Particular notable? A painting of an individual speaking into a microphone, one of a woman dancing, and yet another allows us a peek at a family’s laughter. Additional pieces of art show people engaging in various manual labor tasks. Each one showcases some of the most inherently wonderful aspects of his work.

While the subjects of Zhang’s art widely range in ethnicity and age, the color palettes blend effortlessly, the shading and detail never waver and the emotional experience is thoroughly palpable.

Zhang’s notable artistic exhibitions and accolades

Stephen Zhang’s work has been featured in a variety of exhibitions over the years, both in group shows and as a solo artist. Group exhibitions include “Watermark” (Collin College Gallery, 2001), “Watercolor Now!” (Springfield Art Museum, 2003), “International Watercolor Exhibition” (Japan – 2004, 2005), “Rob Erdle, His Students, His Influence” (UNT on the Square Gallery, 2014), and “Our Faces, Our Voices” (Fort Worth Community Art Center, 2020).

Zhang’s artistic accolades span many different categories. His work has been featured in several publications, including:

  • Watercolor Artist Magazine (2015, 2017, 2019, 2021)
  • International Artist Magazine (2017, 2018)
  • American Art Collector Magazine (2017)
  • “40 Portrait Masters” (2019)

He has earned over thirty awards over the span of his career so far, including:

  • Top Award (Kenneth M. Shuck Memorial Award)
  • Watercolor USA
  • ArtistNetwork.com’s “Best in Show” in 2021.

Additionally, his work has earned “Best of the Show” at the 11th Annual Signature American Watermedia International Exhibition and the Watermedia Showcase in 2018 and 2020. Zhang also took home the Grand Prize at the International Artist Magazine Landscape Competition in 2017 and the Infiniti National Art Competition in 1992.

The painter, designer and professor graduated from the Luxun Academy of Fine Arts (or Lu Xun) with his Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, China. He later achieved his Master of Fine Arts in Communication Design from the University of North Texas (UNT). Zhang’s professional career includes positions as Vice President and Creative Director at Lodge26 Branding Agency and renowned companies like Filson and Fossil. He has been an assistant professor at his alma mater Luxun Academy of Fine Arts, and began as an assistant professor at UNT in 2018.

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